Bloomington city council to consider new law protecting homeless encampments in parks

Seminary Park from the Walnut Street side, looking northwest on Jan. 23, 2021. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

A new local law that would provide certain protections to people living in city park encampments could get a first reading in front of Bloomington’s city council on Feb. 3.

The proposed new law comes after a decision by Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to clear a Seminary Park encampment in early December and again in mid-January.

On Saturday, Jan. 23, four tents were set up on the Walnut Street side of the park, and a half dozen people were congregated there.

Highlights of the proposed new law include a requirement of 15-day notice by the city to a homeless person living in a city park encampment, before they and their belongings can be removed from the park.

Another requirement of the proposed law is that the city catalog and store for at least 60 days the belongings of a person who is removed from a park encampment. The amount of belongings the city must store is described in the draft as fitting “entirely within one 96-gallon container per displaced person.”

Under the proposed new law in its draft form, the city wouldn’t be able to close down a park encampment unless there is “sufficient available housing”—except in the case of an emergency.

After giving the required 15-day notice, the city would, under the proposed new law, have to work with service providers, faith-based organizations, street ministries, or volunteers ensure that those in the encampment are offered alternative housing and wraparound services.

The possibility of a Feb. 3 first reading, which could mean enactment at the city council’s Feb. 17 meeting, was floated at the city council’s noon work season on Friday, Jan. 22.

On Friday, councilmember Matt Flaherty briefed council colleagues and several city department heads on the proposed ordinance, which he and councilmember Kate Rosenbarger have drafted, with input from councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith.

Flaherty put the proposed new law in the context of a “Houseless Bill of Rights”  that had been circulated by activist Vauhxx Booker just after the first clearance of Seminary Park in early December. One of the points of overlap between the new ordinance and the “Houseless Bill of Rights” is the requirement of a 15-day notice before people are removed.

Flaherty said Booker had also alerted the city council to an Indianapolis ordinance that was enacted in 2016.  According to Flaherty, the Bloomington ordinance is basically the same as the Indianapolis law, with some clarification of details. Bloomington’s ordinance also translates some of the wording to the specific context of Bloomington’s array of organizations that support people who are experiencing homelessness.

Flaherty described a couple of differences between the Indianapolis ordinance and the proposed Bloomington ordinance.

One of those differences is the scope of public space to which it applies. The Indianapolis law describes a protected camp in part as “a place on public property.” Flaherty said the Bloomington ordinance is confined to parks.

Flaherty said the definition of “homelessness” used in the ordinance is taken from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) lists definitions of homelessness in three places: Section 91.5, Section 582.5 and Section 583.5

In remarks made at the last few city council meetings, Flaherty and Piedmont-Smith have been critical of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s decision to clear the encampment of houseless people at Seminary Park.

At a meeting of the city council’s public safety standing committee on Jan. 14, Piedmont-Smith described in general terms the new law protecting park encampments, which Rosenbarger and Flaherty were drafting.

At Friday’s work session, councilmember Susan Sandberg picked up on a criticism that deputy mayor Mick Renneisen had made earlier during the meeting. Renneisen said Flaherty had not yet discussed the proposed new law with relevant city department heads, like the director of parks and recreation, or the director of public works.

Sandberg said it seemed to her that the sponsors of the legislation had not had adequate discussions with the city’s staff. She asked, “So can this be worked on a little more slowly and deliberately, before it’s fast tracked?”

Flaherty reacted to Sandberg’s description of the pace of the legislation by saying, “I think the characterization of ‘fast tracking’—I just disagree with.” He added, “I do feel like there is some sense of urgency, from my perspective, as someone who disagrees with the policies the city has undertaken in recent months.”

Renneisen’s objection came after Flaherty told the deputy mayor that he did not think a city council work session is an appropriate venue for a substantive policy discussion. That was a view supported by council president Jim Sims, who was chairing the meeting.

That meant that department heads—chief of police Mike Diekhoff, director of parks and recreation Paula McDevitt, director of public works Adam Wason, and director of community and family resources Beverly Calender-Anderson, who were on the Zoom teleconference call—weren’t asked at the city council work session to weigh in with their feedback on the proposed new law.

Flaherty said he’d spoken with the mayor directly about the proposed new law.

Renneisen told Flaherty, “I would urge you, strongly—since we are not going to be able to be allowed to discuss the unintended consequences of what we now see as proposed legislation—to talk to [department heads] on this call.”

The parameters for the work session back-and-forth allowed for questions to be asked. So Renneisen asked Flaherty: “So what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?”

Flaherty responded: “I would say violations of our unhoused neighbors’ basic rights, for a start. For instance, being evicted from public space without notice, or with essentially no notice.”

Flaherty then indicated he did not want to take up Renneisen’s question at the work session, saying, “This gets into substantive policy discussions that I don’t think are actually appropriate.”

It’s not that he did not wish to get feedback from the city staff, Flaherty said, he just didn’t think a work session was the right venue. Flaherty said, “It’s a question of venue for me, to some extent. We’ve invited written feedback from the administration.”

Flaherty added, “I think this is a public issue that deserves a public conversation. And I would like to see the conversation take place in that type of forum.”

City council work sessions fall under Indiana’s Open Door Law and have to be publicly noticed and accessible to the public. Friday’s work session was properly noticed and was attended by some members of the public. Neither state statute nor local code prohibit public comment at a city council work session.

If the ordinance is introduced at the city council’s Feb. 3 meeting, it won’t get any discussion by councilmembers on that date. That’s because under local local code, no discussion by the city council is allowed at a first reading.

One way the council could handle the proposed homeless protections ordinance would be to refer the legislation to a committee for closer scrutiny. That committee meeting would take place on Feb. 10.

4 thoughts on “Bloomington city council to consider new law protecting homeless encampments in parks

  1. If staying in a shelter like Wheeler is objectionable to some, why involve faith based organizations in helping to find service and shelter.

  2. Of course our community must continue to house and shelter our neighbors. But is it discriminatory to allow those without houses to camp all night in a park without allowing anyone to stay during the same time period?

  3. I am just trying to find areas that may cause problems for this legislation. What are other options for those without shelter?

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